Do citizens have a right to be consulted about proposed large industrial developments? This question is at the heart of a major appeal to be heard by the Federal Court, May 15th – the ruling will profoundly influence efforts to protect Canada’s environment.
In September, the Federal Court ruled that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Natural Resources Canada acted illegally in shielding the proposed Red Chris copper and gold mine, in northern British Columbia, from a comprehensive environmental assessment with public consultation.
The ruling endorsed arguments made by lawyers for Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) who were acting for MiningWatch Canada, a national organization that advocates for accountable mining and that had attempted to participate in the environmental review of the Red Chris proposal. It is considered a major victory as it upheld a law passed by Parliament in 2003, which required a greater role for public consultation in environmental assessments.
“We are defending the original Federal Court decision, and the right of members of the public to be heard before the government decides whether major industrial projects go ahead,” said Lara Tessaro, the Ecojustice lawyer arguing the appeal case.
Under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Cabinet regulations, metal mines processing more than 3,000 tonnes of ore per day must undergo comprehensive assessments, with public participation. The Red Chris Mine could produce 30,000 tonnes of ore a day. The company behind the project, Imperial Metals, proposes to turn fish-bearing streams into a tailings impoundment and waste rock dumps that would contain hundreds of millions of tonnes of toxic materials – threatening contamination of the Stikine watershed for centuries to come.
DFO and NRCan, however, undertook a simple screening assessment that excluded public participation. Among those who would have been silenced are elders from the community of Iskut, who have tried to prevent the Red Chris mine and other developments proposed in an area known as the “Sacred Headwaters” of the Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers.
“It is crucial that the public have a voice in environmental assessments, to balance the views of a well-financed mining industry that puts profits ahead of the environment and the welfare of local communities” said Joan Kuyek, National Co-ordinator for MiningWatch.